Tolerance, as our culture defines it, is the idea that people should have the freedom to be themselves. You shouldn’t try to change people or hold them to your standards. You certainly shouldn’t push your religion on others. Faith is a private matter, so proselytizing is immoral. You shouldn’t label, define, or stereotype people. Since your view of morality is personal, you can’t judge others for thinking differently. Instead, you should accept people for who they are, regardless of their beliefs or lifestyle. Slogans like “don’t judge me” and “live and let live” express the concept of tolerance. Whereas hyper-individualism focuses on realizing one’s own desires, tolerance extends freedom to others. While hyper-individualism says, “I’ll do me,” tolerance says, “You do you.” Before looking at the benefits and detriments of this way of thinking, I want to first illustrate it using two examples. Lastly, I’ll present a biblical perspective on tolerance that challenges our culture and us to love courageously.
Cultural Example 1: Judging Homeless People
Some time ago, I came across this moving and challenging video about a homeless man in an Asian country. The scene opens with a dirty man with long, unkempt hair and no shoes sleeping on the sidewalk outside a little shop. The door to the shop opens, and the owner comes out with a bucket of water and douses the sleeping vagrant. In shock, the man recoils, struggles to his feet, and runs away terrified while the shopkeeper shouts at him. The next day, the scene repeats, although this time he uses a broom to wake him up and chase him away. Day after day, the owner chases away the homeless man, unwilling to give him the smallest morsel of food or show the slightest bit of kindness. Then one day, the poor man is gone. Days pass, and he doesn’t come back. Each day, the owner opens the door and looks for him, somewhat forlorn now, and is disappointed he’s not there. Then he remembers that he has a video camera installed and checks the footage. What he sees completely shocks him.
He watches his own treatment of the down-and-outer and feels ashamed of his intolerance. Then he sees what happened at night while he was sleeping. The homeless man cleaned up trash in front of the shop; he chased vandals away seeking to graffiti the door; he ran off a man who was peeing on the door; he confronted a couple of thieves as they attempted to break in and got stabbed. That’s why he never came back. The video ends with the message “There’s much more truth that you are blind to” and then pitches the sale of Vizer video cameras. The hardworking shop owner judged and mistreated the homeless man because he thought of him as a lazy nuisance. However, he learned that this homeless man was the shop’s nocturnal protector. This video shows how wrong it is to express intolerance toward others who are different than we are, especially in light of our limited knowledge of the situation.
Cultural Example 2: Things Everybody Does with President Obama
In this light-hearted BuzzFeed video aimed at convincing people to sign up for health insurance, we see the president doing all kinds of mundane activities like trying out new looks in the mirror, sketching pictures of his girl, using a selfie stick to take pictures, blaming the president when he can’t dip a cookie in his glass of milk. Last of all, the video shows Obama in his office pretending to make the game winning shot at the end of basketball game when his aid walks in. He shoots him a quizzical look and says, “Mr. President.” Obama replies, “Can I live?” The aid replies, “You do you.” Here the point is that you shouldn’t pigeonhole Obama into a rigid presidential role. He’s does normal guy stuff too. Let him be himself. Before evaluating tolerance and looking at the biblical perspective, let’s first think through both the benefits and detriments of tolerance.
Benefits of Tolerance
Tolerance has quite a few benefits worthy of admiration – the first of which is that a tolerant society respects people’s freedom of choice rather than forcing them into a particular mold based on family trade, social status, or religion. Extending people freedom to be themselves facilitates a more colorful and interesting society where people can express their uniqueness. For example, under the Puritan theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the government so clamped down on religious freedom that they persecuted Bible-believing Christians who diverged from their way of thinking. For example, they ran Roger Williams out even though he was a conservative Baptist. Ironically, Christianity has withered in countries that continued to have state-sponsored churches, whereas America’s religious toleration has led to incredible flourishing. In addition, a pluralistic society cuts down on hypocrisy, arguably the behavior that irritated Jesus more than any other. Other benefits include a diminishment of racism, increased opportunity for employment, and avoidance of hurtful stereotyping.
Detriments of Tolerance
However, this system of tolerance also can lead to disengagement from society. Rather than working for a better world, we should “live and let live.” For example, how does tolerance help us when it comes to issues like income inequality? The rich are not harming the poor nor are they demonstrating intolerance, but they may exercise a disproportionate control over everyone’s lives both in terms of corporate and political influence. Shouldn’t we “let them do them?” A second detriment of tolerance is that it reduces morality to behaviors that affect others. What if someone is hurting himself, slowly digging himself into debt with a gambling addiction? Should we just let him sink without intervening? Lastly, we’ve witnessed how society has used tolerance as a stick to beat others who are intolerant. For example, when Dan Cathy, the COO of Chick-fil-A, explained why he didn’t support gay marriage, activists organized boycotts and protests. Public shaming and corporate intolerance contribute to a culture of outrage that increasingly limits freedom of expression. Christians oftentimes feel they need to stay in the closet about their beliefs for fear of getting ridiculed or fired.
Evaluating the Tolerance Ethic
Now that we’ve looked at the pros and cons of tolerance, let’s examine the idea a little more closely. According to Merriam-Webster, tolerance is a “willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different than your own.” However, very few actually live according to this definition. We like to think of ourselves as tolerant, magnanimous people, but in reality we all put limitations on tolerance. For example, our society doesn’t tolerate murder, rape, or child abuse. Thus, “tolerance” is a neutral concept, not a virtue in itself. It can be used for good or ill. For example, I should not tolerate my child torturing the dog for fun. I should express intolerance. Why? Well, it is wrong to torture animals. So, here we see the true nature of tolerance. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but it depends on underlying moral commitments and beliefs about human flourishing. This is why tolerance sometimes ties itself into a knot. For example, if you believe everyone should practice tolerance, but you run into someone who is really intolerant, you can’t help but shaming them. Thus, tolerance often transforms into intolerance, precisely what it opposes, especially when it encounters intolerance.
Our culture tends to put two main limitations on tolerance:
No harm: you are free to do as you like so long as it doesn’t harm others.
No intolerance: you should not express intolerance toward others.
People generally agree that the no-harm principle should limit tolerance. Thus, we should not tolerate behaviors that hurt others. But, how do we know what behaviors qualify as harm? That will depend on what our deeper moral commitments are. For example, is it harmful for a man to watch pornography regularly? He’s not hurting anyone else? He’s supporting an industry of hard-working actors, which, in turn, benefits the economy, right? Well, he’s also retraining his mind to objectify women, which will skew his future relationships and possibly result in significant anti-social behavior. Consider a second example: should women have the right to choose to have an abortion? Here tolerance can’t help us at all, since the situation pits two freedoms against one-another. Who should have freedom: the mother or the baby? If we grant the fetus freedom, then the mother must carry it to term. If we grant the mother freedom, then the child must die. So, how do we know which side to take? Once again, tolerance depends on deeper moral commitments. Ironically, in our society today, those who push for tolerance most vehemently often end up curtailing the human rights of children in the womb. These examples show how the no-harm principle fails to guide us. In addition, it is not clear whether we should act for immediate harm or ultimate harm. For example, should someone lie to avoid hurting her boyfriend or should she tell the truth? If she is worried about immediate harm, then she should lie, but if she wants the relationship to workout ultimately, lying will probably erode relational trust, causing problems down the road. Once again, the no-harm principle is not enough to go on to make moral choices.
Consider too how belief in God plays into the situation. Why should an atheist care about the no-harm principle at all? Obviously, our cultural milieu pressures him to play along as if he believes this way, but he can certainly cheat whenever it’s to his advantage (especially if he knows he can get away with it). But, if someone believes in God, then doesn’t the no-harm principle extend to her? Shouldn’t we care about hurting God? For example, with any sin I commit, I defy what God says is right. Even if my sin does not affect other people, it still disregards God. Thus, whether one believes in God or not, the no-harm principle fails to provide us with consistent guidance.
Let’s examine tolerance a bit further. Tolerance is all about extending freedom to others, especially those who are different from you. As Americans, we think of freedom as an inalienable human right. In olden times, we wanted to be free to choose a career, a spouse, or where to live (over against communism, for example). Now, in the culture of tolerance, we tend to absolutize freedom and to argue that people should be free to do whatever they want, however they want, with whomever they want, so long as it is not illegal. However, such a view of freedom is naïve at best and self-destructive at worst. We all have limitations and need to assess the trade-offs when freedoms come into conflict. For example, say a woman wants to be free to enjoy her lover without worrying about sexually transmitted diseases, but he won’t limit his freedom to sleep around with others. In this case, his freedom inhibits hers. It’s difficult to see which side would be right here based on tolerance alone. If they got married and practiced sexual fidelity, she could enjoy her freedom, but this would curb his. When freedoms come into conflict, how do we decide which should take priority? Consider Tim Keller’s take on this:
A sixty-year-old man may have a strong desire to eat fatty foods, but if he regularly exercises his freedom to give in to that desire, his life will be curtailed in some way. He must choose to lose a lesser freedom (to eat these foods he enjoys) for a greater freedom (health and long life). If you want the freedoms that comes with being a great musician—the ability to move people with your music and to make a good living for your family—you will have to give up your freedom to do other things in order to practice eight hours a day for years. Freedom is not, then, simply the absence of restrictions, but rather consists of finding the right, liberating restrictions. Put another way, we must actively take tactical freedom losses in order to receive strategic freedom gains. You grow only as you lose some lower kinds of freedom to gain higher kinds. So there is no absolute negative freedom.
So tolerance cannot make it on its own since it is unclear when to express it and when to limit it. We need some deeper principle to guide us when choosing what to tolerate in ourselves and others. Now, let’s turn to see how the Bible can provide some guidance.
A Biblical Perspective
Jesus said the two greatest moral principles are to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. However, true love requires sacrificing some freedom in order to create a trusting relationship. If we give up our self-sovereignty in an effort to love and obey God, we gain freedom from having to figure out everything on our own, and we get to enjoy fellowship with God. By giving up some lower freedoms, we gain a trusting relationship with God that can both satisfy our souls and help us be more harmonious members of society. The greatest choice you can make is to sublimate your will to God’s by committing to and following after His anointed one, Jesus Christ. When we do that, we limit our autonomy, resulting in liberation from the selfishness that constantly spurs us on towards sin. Here is how Jesus, himself, put it:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Sin is very deceptive. As I said in my last article on hyper-individualism, we think we are free moral agents, but we are full of competing impulses, some dark and some light. We need God’s help to figure out our true selves so that we can lead authentic godly and fulfilling lives. When we try to become free from social constraints and traditional values, we may correct some errors, but we may also find ourselves enslaved to an insidious selfishness. Like food in your teeth, selfishness, though visible to those close to us, is often impossible for us to spot without some external mirror to show us what we really look like. This is why the Christian ethic requires humility. Although sometimes lampooned as arrogant, Christian morality actually begins by recognizing our limitations to discern right from wrong. We do not go around saying we know better than society about abortion, gay marriage, or pre-marital sex. No, the genuine Christian says, “I don’t know. I can’t trust my own moral compass, and I certainly can’t just go along with whatever the culture says. I need help. I need some external, accurate perspective to guide me.” This is where Scripture steps in. It tells us what God thinks about how we should live. This is really the best of both worlds because we can find out what is right and wrong with confidence but without thinking we are better than anyone else.
Even so, Christ does not call us to take over the world’s governments and impose our morality on everyone else. Taking into consideration Jesus’ own cultural and political setting, we see a man who never forced his will on others. He did not try to protest the Roman occupation as an outsider or campaign for a position in the government as an insider. He told people the gospel about the Kingdom; he called people to repentance; he liberated people from oppression. He did not try to change the divorce law, even though he disagreed with the reigning interpretations of the day. Instead, he told people what God said about the subject, appealing to their hearts. Christians may take different positions on the degree to which we should participate in government, but we all agree that genuine lasting change has to come from within.
So, pulling this all together, Christianity is pro-tolerance, but not with the same limitations as our culture. Instead of shaming people for their lack of tolerance or intervening only when they harm others, the Christian view looks to humility and love, while considering Jesus as our example of how to deal with conflict. We recognize our own finitude and leave defining morality to the Creator. Then we look for ways to love God and others as ourselves. The standard is quite high:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
This is far more difficult than just tolerating people. True love is deep because it gives of itself. It is active rather than passive. We get involved in people’s lives, helping them to find their Creator so they can enter into a relationship with Him. Once someone meets God and comes to grips with His outrageous love, he or she is much more open to what God says on a particular moral issue. It just won’t do to lecture others about godly morality while they are alienated from Him. It would be like an anonymous girl telling you to give her the phone number for your spouse. Why should you listen to a stranger? What gives her the right to tell you what to do? Yet, as soon as you realize it is your daughter who is asking, you don’t hesitate to give her the number. Relationship changes everything. So, too, it is with God. The goal is not to force outsiders to do what He says, but to invite them in.
Tim Keller, Preaching (NY:Viking 2015), pp. 1445.